On the Moderator

On the Moderator
Position Paper by Chris Schlect
Approved and submitted to Presbytery by the Constitutional Review Committee

I. Introduction: A Few Concerns
Our culture’s idea of a “moderator” is saddled with baggage that we need to abandon. We in the CRE [Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches] tend to think of “moderator” as an impersonal cog, turning in its place in an impersonal corporate machine. We view the moderator not as person, but as office. He is not a shepherd, he is an entity that holds a position with a formal title. This view is Gnostic to the core, as the present paper will show. It is a real problem and needs a real solution.

The problem emerges out of our idea of presbytery itself. Ontologically speaking, we tend to think of presbytery as having “existence” only for the duration of a duly constituted and called meeting. Upon adjournment, presbytery disappears into the ether. It reappears again, incarnating out of the ether when the next stated meeting is called to order. How do we pass the time between incarnations? American Presbyterians often do it with standing committees and clerks who continue the work of presbytery in an ongoing way. Of course, in theory these committees are not the “real” presbytery; all they can do is come up with proposals to present at the next incarnation of presbytery. But this theory does not comport with how God made the world, and we all know it. What standing committees and clerks actually do is the real, living-and-breathing labor of wrangling and deliberating and deciding and doing. But not officially. At the next magical incarnation, the committee reports to presbytery and the presbytery receives the report by means of motions and seconds and ayes. What could go wrong? Suppose several committee members step out of line and do evil. We all know what they’ll do: they’ll say, “We didn’t actually do anything, we’re just a committee. It wasn’t us. Don’t blame us, blame presbytery.” Here the platonic presbytery, by means of its mechanism and formalism, shelters evil men from face-to-face accountability. Conversely, mechanism and formalism can stand in the way of good people, true shepherds in the biblical sense, who must slog through red tape and “due process” in their labors to bring about real action. The history of American Presbyterianism is rife with illustrations. So it is wherever actions are carried out by esoteric offices rather than by flesh-and-blood shepherds. (Thankfully, the history of American Presbyterianism is also filled with glorious examples of shepherding.)

The notion we are criticizing here is that presbytery has “existence” or “life” only during the meeting, and that no presbyterial “life” exists outside the meeting. We tend to view presbyteries as abstract entities, apparatuses, made up of officers. But we should be viewing presbyteries as organic bodies made up of real persons. Our continental-Reformed brethren say that their broader assemblies disappear between meetings. Yet the many good, sound men in that tradition maintain their ongoing interchurch life by other means, usually informal. We seek such a means as well, but prefer to formalize it.

This discussion bears importantly on our idea of what a moderator is. A prevailing thought is that the moderator’s function is limited in scope to the presbytery meeting itself. In theory, all he does is preside over the meeting. True, he does things between meetings, but even this is tied to the meeting itself: he prepares the agenda ahead of time, then he deals with the minutes afterwards. This notion dehumanizes the person of the moderator, and is far more Gnostic than scriptural. I call it “Gnostic” because of the warped Christology lurking back of it. The body of Jesus Christ is not an ethereal, abstract, disconnected-from-time-and-history sort of thing. The body of Christ is not an “ecclesiastical body politic.” The true body of Christ, the one the Bible speaks of, is made up of . . . well . . . bodies! These bodies, the saints, are fleshy things who eat and drink and do charity and greet one another with kisses and laugh and cry and sing with one another and who get in one another’s faces when needed. And so it is with Jesus, born of woman, born under law, at with tax collectors, broke bread, served wine, washed feet. And we are His body. Where moderators preside over an inanimate object or a Platonic form, shepherds pastor a living body.

II. Approaching a Solution
We need personal authority and personal accountability. What we do not need is apparatus. In one important sense (and certainly not in every sense — qualifications are forthcoming), the moderator ought to function like a bishop. Bear with me here. When we think of a bishop, we think of a living person who can talk and act with authority. So it should be with our moderator. Therefore, our constitution should authorize and charge our moderators to speak for the presbytery (or for the CRE [CREC] if he is moderator of council). He should make decisions on behalf of the presbytery as he sees fit (within certain bounds, of course). He should function as a person, a shepherd, and not as an impersonal office-holder. In this respect (but not in a host of other respects), he functions like an Episcopalian bishop. In fact, to our shame and embarrassment, even a Roman Catholic Pope functions more biblically in this one respect than our warped notion of a moderator. A bishop or pope has real, personal authority and speaks with a person’s voice.

Here come the qualifications. Of course, we think of other things when we think of a bishop or pope, things which we all despise. Episcopal bishops and Roman popes function unscripturally in the top-down force of their authority; they are not accountable to the church in a biblical way. We want nothing to do with that. The issue under discussion here is personalism vs. impersonalism. For all our valid complaints against episcopacy and papacy, we should concede that they outdo us in this area. Biblical leadership, authority, and accountability is personal. Where we Presbyterians are tempted to rule by apparatus, the Bible teaches us to shepherd.

The CRE [Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches] moderator, and the various presbytery moderators, should be the personal embodiment of the CRE [CREC] or of their respective presbyteries. Of course, in this role they are subject to the presbytery as a whole: their authority is derived from presbytery and can be removed by presbytery. Thus, a wayward moderator could be rebuked or even deposed in a presbytery meeting. And if a moderator really blows it and needs to be dealt with immediately, we have provision for calling an ad hoc meeting in order nullify his decision and, perhaps, to remove him and appoint another in his place.

What I am advocating here would, I believe, preserve an organic, day-to-day life of the CRE [CREC]. The CRE [Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches] would have an ongoing incarnation, embodied in a person, rather than an abstract existence between meetings of presbytery. It is the lack of this kind of personal shepherding which forces many presbyterians to commit their ongoing presbyterial work to impersonal standing committees, and to bureaucrats we call “stated clerks”. Ironically, Presbyterians become de facto Episcopalians when bureaucrats rule the church from the denominational home office.

The moderator we have in mind does not outrank any particular CRE [CREC] elder. The moderator is chosen by the presbytery delegates, and any one delegate could take him to task before the whole presbytery; both the delegate and the moderator stand on equal footing, and the vote of presbytery decides between them. An action of our moderator is the act of presbytery, and our moderator must have the freedom to act for the good of the presbytery. Moreover, any and all of his actions are subject to review and nullification by presbytery (cf. Numbers 30). (In the same way, any act of presbytery could be nullified by a subsequent presbytery, of course within constitutional limits.)

III. Particulars
A. One thing the term “bishop” has going for it is that we find it in the Bible.
“Moderator” is not a biblical term, and it carries some unbiblical baggage. If we substituted the term “bishop” for “moderator,” the personal nature of the office would be underscored. Because we know that Scripture interchanges the terms “bishop” and “presbyter,” we would see to it that the unbiblical hierarchy that is often associated with the term “bishop” would be avoided. We believe that having a bishop of presbytery will actually help us to guard against the sort of episcopal hierarchy that creeps into other Presbyterian communions. In typical American Presbyterianism, standing committees and stated clerks run the show from the top down in Episcopalian fashion. As we see it, it is a personal, in-the-flesh, acting bishop, a man who is personally accountable to presbytery, who presents a biblical remedy to the Episcopal tendencies latent in most forms of Presbyterianism.

We would adopt this language only if we also made clear that the bishop is one chosen from among bishops. If we reserve this title for the moderator-bishop only, we would also be employing an unbiblical usage of the term.

B. Specifics in the CRE [CREC] Constitution:
Currently, VIII.A reads:
Neither council nor presbyteries will be considered as having acted unless a measure is moved, seconded, carried by the appropriate number of votes, entered in the minutes, and approved in the minutes.
Comment: One of the laudable purposes of this provision is to prevent presbytery from acting in a clandestine fashion. Every act of presbytery needs to be duly noted, and anything done under the table is not an act of presbytery. But there are two problems with the current language. First, it could be construed as saying that an action doesn’t really become an action until the minutes are approved. Second, and more to the present point, it precludes presbytery from acting through its moderator; a presbytery action can take place only by vote in a presbytery meeting. A simple rewording can retain the “above the table” principle while at the same time removing the concerns. Thus—

Committee Recommendation 14
Proposal for new VIII.A
Council or presbytery acts properly when either (a) in a duly constituted meeting, the measure is moved, seconded, carried by the appropriate number of votes, entered in the minutes, and approved in the minutes; or (b) the act is declared in writing by the moderator [bishop] and then included in the moderator’s [bishop’s] written report to the next duly constituted meeting of presbytery or council. At the meeting, the relevant portion of the moderator’s [bishop’s] report must be received by presbytery or council through the process described above.

In another place we read,
Current III.K
As representative of that presbytery, the moderator has the authority to meet with the moderators of any other presbyteries to encourage them or to be encouraged, as well as to inquire about the spiritual and doctrinal health of the churches within the other presbyteries. This should in no way be interpreted as a judicial or prelatical authority.
Comment: Here the moderator is invested with authority to “inquire.” The direction we are moving calls for more than this. Moreover, our current constitution expressly bars the moderator from wielding “judicial” authority. We are of a mind to change this; he should be granted judicial authority, but only with limitations and clearly-formulated accountability to presbytery. We haven’t yet devised new language. We are now seeking presbytery approval to move this direction as we prepare specific recommendations for next year.

We also read this language in the CRE [CREC] Constitution:
III.D. (quoted in part)
The moderator will chair the following meetings, and will be the presbytery’s moderator, representative and spokesman for the next three years (Rev. 2:1; Acts 19:10, 20:28). The moderator will be the spokesman for the presbytery upon his election.

The moderator has the authority to call an ad hoc meeting of the presbytery, with the issues related to the stated reasons for calling the meeting being the only agenda items.

As representative of that presbytery, the moderator may encourage and spiritually strengthen the sessions of elders within his presbytery.
Comment: We believe that the direction we are heading is consistent with this language in our Constitution. Should we modify our constitution to refine the moderator [bishop] position, we may alter these sections, for reasons of style and clarity only, to make them fit with the refinements. (2003 CREC Minutes, 52–56)